The invitation graced the mantelpiece for days: ‘Lord Poltimore and the Directors of Sotheby’s request the pleasure of your company at a Reception and Private View at Shrubland Park, Coddenham, Suffolk’. Its engraved heft stood out from the school timetables, vet’s records, game cards and Defra warnings that surrounded it, a sign of Sotheby’s rich expectations for the sale of one of Suffolk’s most remarkable country estates.
Long before the invitation arrived, news of the sale of Shrubland had spread round Suffolk like a kind of moral flu. ‘Why, why, why?’ preceded and punctuated every conversation at summer lunch parties. No one could accept that financial considerations might be behind the sale, which shows how the grim shadow of inheritance tax has faded from consciousness since the late 1940s and early 1950s. Still, the death of Lord de Saumarez’s father in 1991 and his mother in 2004 would have brought fiscal daylight into the state rooms, however skilled the estate planning. But the insistence on ‘but what is the real reason?’ was strong: in this part of the country, families who have occupied their lands since 1798 do not go gently.
In fact, Lord de Saumarez, warm, perceptive and down to earth, made a list of 30 reasons for selling up. Perhaps it’s what you do on your 50th birthday: sleep in the room where you were born and wake up ready to examine the rest of your life with a cold eye. One day you’re celebrating your good fortune as eldest son and heir, determined to deserve your good luck by pushing the estate into the 21st century. And the next day, lulled by the drone of the A14 and the solemn voices of bank managers/accountants/tax lawyers, the balancing act of running a farm/gravel business/sawmill/nursery/50-acre garden, you ask yourself: is this what I want to do with the rest of my life?
Mind you, Eric de Saumarez has always been aware of the thin thread that separates one existence from another. He was born in 1956, the eldest twin by 12 minutes and, by the convention of primo-geniture, the winner of aristocracy’s lottery: the title, the estate. His twin brother won a different prize that some might call freedom: he’s a jazz guitarist in Los Angeles. If you read it in a novel, you’d grimace at the writer’s lack of imagination.
Even the private view had an air of literary deja vu: the grand and the good of three counties, balancing glasses of wine and catalogues that cost £25, weighed 4?lb and listed 1,776 lots. I looked with amazement at the Meissen dinner service made for Frederick the Great of Prussian in 1761; the two-volume History of America, 1777; the staggering accumulation of generations of stuff. Throbbing in my head was the line from the Anne Stevenson poem To Write It: ‘As furniture heaves off your life, you’ll love your deliverance’.
Predictably, the sale went well, the contents fetching £4.5 million, museums and libraries hungrily vying for the finest treasures. A consortium has made an offer for the whole estate with plans to turn it into a grand hotel and golf course. Time will tell.
In the end, I didn’t bid on anything. I have a piece of Shrubland history. When I first met Eric, he asked why we called our vineyard restaurant The Leaping Hare. A few weeks later, he arrived at Wyken with a small fragment of Roman pottery that had been found at Shrublands. Smooth and perfect, it was decorated with the raised figure of a leaping hare. A treasure 2,000 years old. Priceless.
This article first appeared in Country Life magazine on 5 October, 2006.